The Fire Came Traveling

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter 1

Submitted: June 08, 2019

Reads: 76

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Submitted: June 08, 2019

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The sky would be on fire again. Not tonight. Soon. Somewhere far away, maybe someone would watch and think another star burned brightly. Maybe they’d even wish on it.

That first time, shaking and booms wrenched Ezra from sleep into darkness pierced with red flashes. Four-year-old Eli cried and screamed in Father’s arms. Prayers whispered by Mother flowed together. Ezra watched in silence through their bedroom window. In each flash, centuries passed. Large pieces of buildings were gone, replaced by smoke. Pebbles hailed on the street below. People ran, fading into the night, away from the village, away from life. His childhood popped out of existence, holes punched in paper.

 

Two years later, there were no bombs. Not yet. They were coming, though, bringing the fire with them.

 

He sensed it in Mother’s voice, calm and kind, a tremor in her last few words. How tightly she pressed the baby into her dress, as if she wanted it to smell its red flowers. How she looked at scratches in the floorboards when Eli dropped black checkers like bombs over the checkerboard and came to her. Her eyes went to Ezra’s reds, scattered like bloodstains, then the dresser, then Eli’s expectant face. Anywhere but Ezra.

“I’ll pack,” Ezra offered, his foot brushing the checkers aside. “Eli, get your jacket.” Eli’s wide brown eyes settled on him, Mother’s hand in his curly dark hair. Saying nothing, he ran to the closet, pulling down a blue raincoat and knocking off several hangers. “It’s okay. Go.”

The first time, packing took a day. Father helped. They chose what they wanted. Before they left the country, they had to drop half of it.

But Ezra remembered the routine. After they left, he slid his school bag off the door hook. Newer than most of their clothes, gray with leather straps, it was one of the most generous donations. Lately he rarely went to school; he helped at home and at night studied French to translate for Mother. He’d give Eli the bag, but most of Eli’s things were lost or stolen.

He packed an outfit for himself and Eli. His own rain jacket. Eli’s plush cat in case he cried. The picture frame beside their television. One large photo captured warm weather, the four of them outside the city castle. All the same tan skin, dark eyes and hair, Ezra’s cut short while Eli’s curled. A smaller yellowing photograph in the bottom right corner showed their father. He stayed in their village after the fire, promising he’d follow after. Ezra never saw him again. Father never saw the new baby being born, only several weeks after they arrived in Marseille.

Downstairs, Mother prepared sandwiches and leftover chicken. Strands of her smooth long hair hung across her nose and forehead. Elbows on the wooden counter, Eli nibbled a crust she cut off a baguette. “Picnic, Mama?” he asked, sucking butter off his fingers. She gave him a small smile, shaking her head.

Ezra rummaged through the pantry, squeezing several bars and flatbread into his bag. Little food remained. Their next allowance should arrive in several days, but now that didn’t matter. He might never again eat in this kitchen.

In the entry hall, a small mirror reflected only his face against the white, empty walls. He and Eli used to watch for their father at the small window; maybe today he’d walk up the three steps and they’d be reunited at last. Eventually, today was a day for watching the baby walk, their backs to the window. 

Outside, spring sunlight shone on the pavement and trees with white flowers. Hurried voices broke the calm. Dishes of steaming meats and rice sat abandoned on chairs. Laundry dried on porch steps. Older neighbors watched from their windows, their shutters half-opened, so easy to close themselves from the world if it became too hard. Mother clutched Eli’s hand, pulling them ahead of Ezra. Eli was more interested in the birds nesting in the white-flowered trees.

Natives had nicer streets, better shops. But the café was on this corner, below a cracked wooden sign. Inside, it smelled like mint. They had their first tea there a year ago. Mother was so happy they got a new house; to celebrate they ordered the largest dinner they ever ate. In the alleyway, Ezra played ball with local children as Eli crouched against the lamppost, peeling wrappers off sweets. The boutique with the headless mannequins sold their raincoats. Eli’s first reading attempt was a street sign by the crosswalk. Ezra practiced his shaky French with the bookstore clerk.

Their Marseille. Home.

Sweat and a creeping humidity hung in the air. Mother was silent, as if one word would ignite the fire, burning everything. Maybe they should walk faster; more and more people were passing them. But this wasn’t so frightening, walking beside sun-dappled trees and shadows of maple leaves. If they stayed close to the sidewalk, the panic passed and it was another Sunday walk. Eli would want ice cream soon.

Last time, it was a year’s walk through deserts and over mountains. Mother sold their finest rug to buy a few extra pairs of shoes once the bottoms wore out. When Eli’s feet got sore, Ezra and Mother took turns carrying him. When Ezra’s blisters bled he said nothing but prayers that they wouldn’t become infected.

They kept straight, all the way to the train station.

Mother squeezed them inside. A large crowd separated them and the train.

Eli leaned against the wall, sliding onto the floor. “Eli, it’s dirty,” Ezra said, offering his hand. “Don’t sit on the ground.” Turning his head to the side, Eli observed the clear sky through glass ceiling panels. Forget it. Ezra dropped his hand.

Mother spoke quietly to a woman beside her. Ezra caught lone fragments of Arabic. Maybe it was the humidity, or maybe the coming fire, or the French that begun uprooting once-familiar words, but he couldn’t arrange the fragments to make sense.

Muffled arguing sounded from the front of the crowd. Some adults pushed their way back, knocking Ezra on the shoulder as they shoved through the door. Maybe it was safe to go home. Maybe this was all a waste of time. They could eat their picnic lunch near the ports, laughing how they prepared it for running again. How could fire touch a city by the water?

Ezra stole quick glances at his mother and the other woman. Sullen expressions. Hope died away in his chest. “Two only?” Mother asked, squeezing the baby’s blanket. The woman nodded.

Mother gently pulled Eli up. “I’m tired,” he said, dragging his feet. More people left, holding their children’s hands. Ezra recognized a teenager who tripped him during their last game of football. His eyes were moist and distant.

Men in blue uniforms questioned children, then hurried them into the passenger train. Last spring Ezra woke with a stiff neck, lying on the train’s dirty floor. Sun blinded him as the door opened. Through the dust, soldiers like these welcomed them with water and soft toys.

“Ezra.” He turned and his mother embraced him. She kissed the side of his face. Strange, how far above her kiss he felt wetness.

“I love you,” she whispered.

Marseille fell away, becoming sand and crumbled stone between his feet. Broken buildings now his neighbors’ tombs. His family’s best things strapped to his back. Father’s beard scratching his forehead. “I love you.”

He choked, fighting the urge to cry. He hadn’t so far. He was doing so well. He hadn’t when the fire came, when they left Father and their home forever, when they spent uncertain months sleeping in dirty tents and under the stars. When most of their belongings were stolen. It was okay. It would all pass. God would let it pass. The light that spread, when the train door creaked open, drove out the darkness.

Or maybe it spilled it out.

What, Mama? This isn’t forever. This is passing fire. Fire only burns so long.

Mother didn’t look away this time. Ezra wanted to avoid her eyes, but this would need to last. It might be a long time until they saw each other again.

“Ezra, people think Marseille might become unsafe.”

“I know. But that’s only maybe.”

“Maybe is enough. Be brave. I know you are.”

No,” one thought whispered. “You’ll come too, Mama. We’ll stay together,” a reasonable one offered. But he was the oldest son, the oldest man in the family. Protests were for Eli, for children. Neither voice found his tongue.

“You won’t hide or run. You and Eli are going to live without fear. You won’t hide ever again.” She dropped his hand from his face. “No more tears. You’ll be so happy. I’ll be happy. Listen.”

Kneeling, she grasped his hand in her left, the right against the baby. “They’ll only take two children from each family. You must go with Eli.” Tears stuck to Mother’s long lashes. “I know it’s hard, Ezra. But you did so much already. You can. You must.”

He didn’t want to. Not the man of the house, the protector.

But he wasn’t really a man; he was a ten-year-old boy. When the world burned, he could only try to outrun the flames. If he wanted to protect anyone, it would be Eli, who stood quietly beside him.

Don’t scare him. Even if it terrifies you.

 “As long as you have Eli and you remember me, you’ll always have me with you. Let Eli go first. Speak for him. They’ll take you somewhere safe. If you are separated on boarding, don’t worry. Find each other. But, Ezra, once you find Eli never lose sight of him. Don’t leave the train unless he is beside you.”

Smoke choked him now, not tears. The sun felt hotter than it ever was in their village.

“Ezra, do you understand?”

No, but he nodded anyway. He wanted a final hug, a final kiss, but the policeman signaled to them and Eli needed his goodbye.

Mother stood, pressing Eli to her side. “Eli, I love you.” Eli, eyes half-closed, grunted and tried to pull away. His only interest was a soft place to rest. “Listen to Ezra and the policemen. You’re going to go away for a while, but we’ll see each other again.”

She kissed his cheek and pushed him forward. Ezra watched her worn shoulders sink, the baby pawing at her colorful hijab. Maybe by the time it was ready for school, Mother would know enough French to practice it at home, and the baby would grow up French. He’d practice too. France would care for his mother and baby brother until he could come home again.

“Prochain.”

Mother brushed past him, her arm against his. He stepped across the platform to Eli’s side.

His French was weak, but using it felt right. Learning it would return him to Marseille.

“Je m’appelle Ezra Shayndlan. Mon frere, Elias.”

The officer wrote their names in his notepad. “Sac a dos?”

Ezra opened his bag. The officer sifted through and as he returned it indicated the door. “Vas-y.”

He almost looked back. But Eli walked too fast and if Ezra saw his mother he might break.

 

***

Visions of the dusty, crowded train of last spring passed through Ezra’s head. Rats. Sweat. Hay. Fleas. Somewhere in the mountains, after the deserts ended, they were offered a ride into France. Freight train, no windows, no bathrooms. A several day ride. Three small bottles of water per person until they arrived. Mother’s pregnancy was almost finished. Eli’s clothes hung from his body. They took the risk.

This train had seats. Polished wood. Clean carpet. A place overhead for luggage. Ezra squinted; bright sun shone through windows nearly as tall as half the wall. Children filled most rows, sitting beside each other; a few back rows laid completely empty. Some cried, most sat silently. Several chatted happily.

Eli blended in with all the dark hair and skin. How could I lose him already? He could find him later, but that might be hours away. If they made multiple stops, he couldn’t risk Eli getting off alone. But as he neared the end, he saw the blue raincoat hanging off the seat. He sat down, folding it into his lap. Eli’s face was dry.

He had to keep it that way. “Where’s Mama?”

“We’ll see her later,” Ezra replied, placing the backpack at his feet. “Right now, we have to stay with other kids.”

“Why?” Eli whispered. “We don’t know them.”

“Because that’s what Mama wants us to do.”

Resting his cheek against the window, Eli searched the faces on the other side. “Why can’t Mama come?”

“This is the kids train. There’ll be another train for Mama.” He hoped that was true. “Here.” The stuffed cat hopped out of the backpack, onto Eli’s chest. Ezra hissed unconvincingly. Eli laughed and hugged it. It met Eli on a train, after all. Last year, a soldier offered that snow-colored cat and for the first time after leaving their village Eli smiled.

“Who won the game?” Eli asked, stroking the cat.

“What game?”

“Checkers.”

“Oh.” Ezra sighed. “I was hoping you’d forget. I guess I can’t hide it anymore. You.”

Eli buried his chin into his cat. “I knew it.”

 

Not long after Eli had drifted to sleep, head and cat tucked beneath Ezra’s arm, the doors closed. A crackle sounded in the ceiling. “Bienvenue,” a man’s voice began. “First, in French, then Arabic.” Ezra couldn’t decipher the French quickly enough. He waited, observing the reactions of the other children. Most had vacant faces; they weren’t fluent either. When the man finished, there was a short pause, then a different voice. “Welcome, children. We know you must be confused, maybe scared. Sadly, Marseille is not the best place for children right now. Your parents wanted you to be safe. We will stop at several cities farther away. If you have family near those cities, we will help you find them. Some nice families volunteered to take in children without relatives outside Marseille. Once Marseille is safe again, you will go home.”

“Ezra.” One of Eli’s eyes opened. “What do we do?”

He wasn’t sure. All their relatives were miles away in the desert, if they were even alive. The train wouldn’t travel more than a day or two before they hit the last stop; Europe wasn’t very big. If Marseille became a reflection of their village, he had to take Eli as far away as possible. If things got any worse maybe they wouldn’t even find room on another train. Without any money, they couldn’t get far on their own. Other cities might be unsafe too, but Ezra doubted the train would take them so far away only to leave them in a warzone. What would be the point? If they waited, maybe this would pass in another day and the train would take them back home.

“Nothing for now. We’ll stay on as long as we can.”

“Where will we live?”

“Europe was kind to us, Eli. Someone will let us stay. They’re good to kids.”

“I want to go somewhere nice,” Eli said, swinging his feet.

“I do too, but it’s not a vacation. We need to be safe, and we’re safer as far away as we can go.”

Eli turned over, his head against the window. “I don’t want to be far from Mama.”

Sudden whistling startled Ezra. With a swift jolt, the train sped away, the faces outside the window swept into blurs. “I don’t either. But we have no choice. All we can do is what Mama asked.”

Eli was quiet, blankly watching the passing shops and trees. The last glimpses of the city only made Ezra more miserable. He didn’t want to remember Marseille this way; he looked at his hands instead.

“Ezra, can we go back home? To Daddy?”

Eli hadn’t mentioned Father in weeks. After that long journey through the desert and across mountains, he doubted Eli would ever think of going back. “Eli, our old home was destroyed. It’s not safe at all. Daddy’s probably no longer there.” And if he is, he’s only buried bones now.

He understood, Ezra knew. He was so little when they said goodbye to Father that he only missed the idea of him. Squeezing the cat, he went back to sleep.

***

Someday, this will be behind us. Father’s borrowed words. On the day they left their village, he repeated it several times. As if the more he said it, the more likely it would be true. They ran away and did leave everything behind. He didn’t think that’s what his father meant.

Red numbers on the digital clock, towering before the gangway, showed an hour passed since leaving Marseille.

A policeman wheeled a cart of cookies and water down the aisle. Butter cookies were a fragment of France. Biting into his first, Ezra felt comforted. Before he could finish his second, Eli ate his own box and started on Ezra’s.

A chime rang. “Paris. Those with nearby guardians, please take your belongings and step outside.” Ezra wanted so badly to stay in France, only a short train ride away from home, that he nearly told Eli to stand. But at least ten children in the compartment were leaving and he thought how big the group outside the train must be, how difficult it would be to sort. How safe was Paris, so near to Marseille? Why leave Mother if the fire’s flames could lick at their feet?

The doors closed. Goodbye, France.

Next they stopped in Belgium, then Germany. At the German stop, no one stood. The officer asked for four volunteers. Eli watched Ezra until the doors closed, then he patted the cat. Once the train started again, Ezra pointed out the window. Sharp pink twilight threw shadows into wheat fields. “Look how pretty it is, Eli. You should remember so you can tell Mama. Maybe she’s looking at the same sky too.”

Eli picked at fake fur. The overhead lights dimmed.

“Ezra, I need the bathroom.”

They stumbled down the aisle to the bathroom, Eli first, Ezra following after. He hadn’t packed toothbrushes or paste so they dabbed soap onto their teeth, spreading it with their fingers, and rinsed it out. “I want my cinnamon cereal,” Eli said, so much disappointment in his voice Ezra laughed and swallowed soap. When they sat down Eli fell asleep again. Ezra stole a quick goodnight kiss on his arm.

The humming wheels lent Ezra pockets of sleep. Without anything to rest against, his sore neck often woke him. No dreams came, only brief darkness. The next time he awoke, the train was stationed. Another German sign hung against the wall, the platform deserted. Rain clung to the windows. Was it raining in Marseille too? Did Mother fall asleep? Did she cry until she could? Did she return home or was there a train for her? A safe place for her? No, no more thinking about any of that. France would do all it could. He couldn’t do anything for her now.

The rain didn’t stop. Germany passed, cold and gray. The trolley came again, with eggs, bread, jam, and water. The egg excited Eli. Their mother’s packed lunch had stayed with her, forgotten, and he had wanted the chicken badly.

They peeled the eggs, trying to unwind the shell in one go. Eli cracked his shell off on his first tug. “Ezra, I didn’t give my teacher the homework,” he said through a mouthful of yolk, eyes widening.

Ezra chuckled, careful not to choke on his bite of crust. “It’s okay. Your teacher understands this is more important.”

“Do I have to go to school in the new place?”

“I hope so. We’ll see.”

“I don’t want to go.”

Many children left in Berlin. Their compartment was nearly empty.

He and Eli were playing checkers on a napkin when the train slowed and the officer announced “Le dernier!” He signaled to Ezra and the other two children. “Eli, I think this is it.” He crammed the napkin into his pocket. “Take the cat and let’s go.”

“Where are we?” Eli asked, as Ezra stood and swung his backpack onto his shoulder.

“I don’t know.” It was raining here too. “Somewhere safe.”

 


© Copyright 2019 Lars Walik. All rights reserved.

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